I was born in 1998, so it is safe to say that I belong to the “Harry Potter generation”. It’s hard to define what that is, other than to say that the boom of the Harry Potter franchise essentially shaped the kind of books and movies I was exposed to as a child. Harry Potter set the precedent for Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Hunger Games trilogy, the Twilight saga, and so many other fantasy-driven young adult (YA) narratives. Its success in the box office also made moviemakers take children and YA audiences more seriously.
As much as I would love for this to be a nostalgic blogpost about the wizarding world (despite J.K. Rowling’s recent moral transgressions), I think that would be a disservice to the massive fantasy genre. Yes, Harry Potter was my gateway, as I’m sure it was for countless others, but my understanding of fantasy has evolved immensely since “Chapter 1: The Boy Who Lived”. Instead, in this blogpost, I’m going to argue that reading fantasy can make you a better person.
No, you cry. You can’t stand fantasy. You think it’s silly. Low-brow. Unrealistic. Childish.
But allow me to try and change your mind.
(I should include a disclaimer here: when I say fantasy, I’m including science fiction. Yes, I know this might cause outrage, but sci-fi is just a futuristic, technological extension of fantasy. You think sci-fi writers aren’t making up stuff with artificial intelligence just as much as fantasy writers are with elves?)
Kids Thrive on Fantasy
Fantasy has always had a place in the stories we consume as children. It’s a creative genre, can be very humorous, and inspires kids to think outside the box. Talking animals, magical powers, fantasy kingdoms, curses and boons and chosen ones… What’s not to love?
But kids aren’t stupid. They understand the differences between reality and fiction. One paper even calls them “naïve skeptics” because they use these distinctions to ask questions and frame an understanding of the world. Fantasy simply helps them contextualise their learnings and figure out what’s considered societally “right” and “wrong” — which is why we have a “moral of the story” and heroes and villains. These metaphors and parables make problems easy to understand so kids can extract their values and learn to apply them in real life.
Fantasy also trickles into everyday play, and is considered beneficial for developing kids’ social and cognitive imagination. Kids learn empathy and responsibility through make-believe. They get by on strange worlds and embodying people they admire, which could be their parents, teachers, or the spunky rabbit they read about in a picture book.
Plus, fantasy is fun. Kids aren’t interested in realism or mimesis; they want to explore and find new things. Fantasy, luckily, will never run out of weird concepts and can endlessly tickle the imagination. Just Google “why do kids love fantasy” and several online publications will tell you why the genre is so appealing and so useful for kids. And there are several examples I can pull off the top of my head to support my claim. The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman) can help kids face their fears. Matilda (Roald Dahl) can help them stand up to bullies. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) can spark curiosity, an urge to better themselves, and show them the value of inner beauty.
But wait, you cry. Can’t kids learn things from non-fantasy books? Like Wonder (R.J. Palacio) or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney) or Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)?
Of course they can, and they do. Fantasy is not a replacement; it’s an addition to spark interest, develop abstract ideas, and imagine the world more complexly. Fantasy gives kids access to a broader range of ideas and gives them opportunities to see creativity in action.
Okay, But You’re Not a Kid
Upsettingly, neither am I. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t still learn things from kids’ books and fantasy fictions. It’s definitely a personal preference (or maybe I’m just an incompetent adult who still relies on kids’ media for personal growth) but it is something I would encourage more people to try. Plus, you were a kid at some point and you were exposed to fantasy. And don’t tell me you haven’t written at least one story which was weird and fun and fantastical, only to end it all with, “And it was only a dream.”
So you have been a kid, and you have enjoyed fantasy. And you’ve learned from it whatever you needed to, but now you’re an Adult™ and have other, more important things to read about. Because what’s the point of magic and make-believe when we live in the Real World™?
I guess, by that logic, reading any kind of fiction would be a foolish endeavour. But the whole point of consuming stories is to not take them literally — something we learn as we grow up. Fantasies only get a bad rep because they aren’t as “sophisticated” as “serious” literature, but so many seminal classics have fantastical elements. Gulliver’s Travels ( Jonathan Swift) works as a satire of British society because of its wild exaggerations. Oscar Wilde was able to confront his homosexuality only because of a magical painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and 1984 (George Orwell) wouldn’t be such scathing criticisms of our government systems if they didn’t take fantasy and apply it to dystopian settings.
But we don’t think of these books as belonging to the fantasy genre; we think of them as containing fantasy. We’ve neatly assembled them on the classics shelf and forgotten that Frankenstein‘s core isn’t about the monster; it’s about Frankenstein’s relationship with God and coming to terms with the responsibility of creation.
Now I’m not saying all fantasy is innately meaningful or a clever representation of something. Sometimes fantasy is just fun, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, anyone? Or maybe some Good Omens?) But what I am saying is that within fantasy lies immense potential to reflect real problems in exciting ways. Like, do any of us want to read a book about the coronavirus? No. But give me a book with a magical disease that alters the collective human consciousness and I will speed-read through it to appreciate its hot take on loneliness and isolation.
Game of Thrones, for example, didn’t become such a massive success because they had a couple of dragons in there. It pretty much monopolised pop culture because it reflects human relationships, power dynamics, class differences and religious fanaticism. One compelling argument also states that the series is ultimately a depiction of climate change, and how everyone coming together is the only way to stop it. As Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation would put it, “[Game of Thrones]’s not just for fantasy enthusiasts. They’re telling human stories in a fantasy world!”
And while Game of Thrones isn’t a norm for reflective fantasies, it also isn’t an exception. Writers have been using fantasy as a way to subvert power structures for a long time. Women authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Jeanette Winterson use fantasy as way to explore feminism and patriarchal language. Black authors like Octavia E. Butler, Nnedi Okarofor and N. K. Jemisin use fantasy to deal with race and racial prejudice. Authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie have used magical realism to explore the sociopolitical complexities of their changing nations. The list, once again, goes on, and I didn’t even need to bring up Oscar Wilde again.
So What Am I Saying?
Exactly what I said I’d say: reading fantasy can make you a better person. As one children’s fantasy author says, “Fantasy is the safe zone, but not to escape from the problems of the world, rather to explore them in a safer context.” Through fantasy, it’s not just kids who can learn empathy and responsibility. We (Adults™) can too.
The world is painful and complicated and overwhelming. Reading fantasy isn’t the only solution, but it’s a solution, especially if you want to learn how to abstract real-world problems from fake ones.
And if that hasn’t convinced you, maybe this will: fantasy is more fun than other genres. There, I said it.